Joe Cardella and 25 years of ART/LIFE magazine
By Claudia Pardo 01/26/2012
On Saturday, Jan. 28, the Museum of Ventura County will hold a reception for ART/LIFE magazine’s 25th anniversary. Published from 1981 through 2001, it was the longest-running international periodical of artwork made entirely by hand — including all copies of each issue. Editor and publisher Joe Cardella discussed the impact of ART/LIFE on 20th century art with VCReporter.
VCR: ART/LIFE isn’t a traditional magazine. In this digital age it is hard to fully understand what it means to have something entirely handmade. Please explain how it all started.
Joe Cardella: Every cover of every issue for 25 years said, “Communication for the Creative Mind.” For all the artists, it was a conceptual exchange of all their ideas and their work. That was the intention from the beginning: to enable artists to express themselves and to exchange their ideas with other creative people. The best way to say it so that the young people today can understand it, is that it was a primitive form of social networking. So ART/LIFE was a social network; it’s just that it wasn’t digital or instant. You had to take it to the post office. You had to wrap it up. You had to send it out. You had to wait. We did it internationally through the mail. No e-mail, no desktop computers, no color copiers. A phone, a Rolodex and a black and white copier is what we had.
There must have been a creative void that needed to be filled at the time. How did you recognize the need for a publication of its kind?
It was out of necessity. I had just moved to Santa Barbara from San Francisco, and the contemporary art was very limited at the time. There were about a dozen contemporary artists and they were very cliquish. I entered into this sleepy beach town with a closed art community, coming from a place that was more advanced. Rather than try to penetrate that clique I just went my own way. That’s what created my necessity to exchange ideas with other creative people through the mail. Even though the first issue was only four pages, by the second month, I had found the format that I used for the next 25 years. For the first few months I wanted to see if there was any interest, so I sent them out to friends in the mail for free. Then, I said, “Let’s see if people will subscribe.” That’s when I realized that people really wanted to have this exchange of ideas.
What was the universal appeal of ART/LIFE — for artists and subscribers — that made it successful for more than two decades?
For an artist, the work is not really complete until someone else sees it. That is why ART/LIFE was successful, because every artist and every poet needs that. The poet doesn’t go into a closet to recite his poem. An artist doesn’t lock up his work after he does it. The whole point of it is to show it. Also, the fact that there was no two-year wait list like there was to get into a gallery. With ART/LIFE, once the work was accepted, people would send it and two weeks later they’d get the book in the mail. That’s one thing that I did, was never miss a deadline. So all the bookstores got their issues on the first of the month; all the subscribers and the artists, on the first of the month. There it is.
In a way, ART/LIFE acted as a gallery in that it promoted artists and showcased their original work. How did this benefit the arts community at large?
One of the reasons I started ART/LIFE was so I would have a place for my own work, so my work is in most of the issues. The big advantage of it was to circumvent the whole gallery system. We had a place to put our work and I felt that we really didn’t need to pursue the gallery system because every month we were sending our work to the best museums in America. Artists are very different when they see their art in a publication. A few times a year, artists would travel to New York; they’d go to the Guggenheim, they’d go to MOMA, they’d go to Rizzoli Bookstore and they would look for their issue. Then, they’d come back and say, “Joe, I saw my page in the issue!” Every artist who was ever in ART/LIFE put it on their résumé. How else are you going to put the Guggenheim on your résumé?
Cardella’s illustration shows 25 years of work on one table. It reads: “1,600,000 pages hand-collated on one table.” • Photo by Claudia Pardo
You acted as a curator year after year. Explain how you arranged such diverse work from all over the globe so that it made sense visually.
That was the most fascinating part, to me — creating that flow and that narrative every month. That’s how I discovered global consciousness existed. I would get something from Germany, something from New York, something from California — people who never wrote to each other or talked to each other. But when I put those three works next to each other, I would swear they were having a conversation. That was really amazing. That’s why it was collected by the Getty, Yale and Harvard because they got it. A lot of this happened in what I called the zeitgeist, the German definition for the spirit of the times. It applied perfectly to what we were doing. That’s where I like to travel, that layer of the atmosphere where universal ideas can be exchanged.
When did you decide it was time for ART/LIFE to reach a larger audience?
After the third year, when I thought that ARTLIFE was ready, I took it to New York. For the first three years it was strictly local and through the mail. In 1983, I took it to the Whitney, and Rizzoli, an international bookstore. For 13 years, I was in six of their bookstores. The generosity and openness I [encountered] was very gratifying. It was amazing. Even when I went to see the librarian at Yale, I introduced myself and she said, “It’s amazing that you’re here. I was just going to call you.” I thought she was kidding, but sure enough, they subscribed for the next 20 years — the whole collection. By that time they had heard about it from New York. UCSB started subscribing early, so they have pretty close to a full set up there. Then the Getty and LACMA, which has a full set currently showcased in the library, permanently. It’s the most popular magazine sold at the Guggenheim museum in New York.
Over the years, artists must have created work that reflected the current events of the time. When did you see the first indication that ART/LIFE had accomplished what it had set out to do?
Every time there was a war, every time there was a catastrophe, when they built the Berlin Wall, when they tore down the Berlin Wall, when there was an assassination — it’s all there. So, after about 20 years, I could see the whole way that the industrial age was going digital. ART/LIFE is a time capsule, an artifact. As the digital age became dominant, it became natural to put a lid on the time capsule and adapt to new technology. When people see it and realize that it’s handmade, they can’t wrap their head around it. Who would do this? Who and why? I think my generation is the last willing to make things by hand. It’s sad. ART/LIFE was taking a very high road because 99 percent of the population didn’t get it. I was appealing to that very small segment of the population that did get it. You see, it didn’t matter to me that we only did 200 copies a month, which for most people is a joke. The thing is that it didn’t matter that the number was so small because it was going to the absolute best places in America.
Joe Cardella will speak about 25 years of Art/Life magazine at the Museum of Ventura County on Saturday, Jan. 28 from 4 to 6 p.m. Select issues will be on display and contributing artists such as MB Hanrahan, Steve Knauff, Eric Ward and Friday Lubina will be on hand to discuss the magazine’s history. A reception will be held from 6 to 8 p.m.